Filmmaker Luke Sparke Talks Aussie Sci-Fi Epic OCCUPATION!

02 July 2018

Luke Sparke, the writer/director behind 2016 creature-feature RED BILLABONG, returns with a new vision of a dystopian Australia – OCCUPATION, Australia’s first sci-fi action epic.

OCCUPATION follows a group of civilians after their small Australian country town is annihilated by an overwhelming airborne attack as they evade capture and discover they are now among the last remaining survivors of an extra-terrestrial invasion engulfing the entire planet. As humanity falls under world-wide occupation, they form a homegrown army to fight back against vastly superior enemy forces. On the frontline of the battle for Earth, they are our last hope.

A high-concept blockbuster that rivals Hollywood output, OCCUPATION is hotly anticipated by genre film fans worldwide. Ahead of the film’s World Premiere on Tuesday July 10th and its Australian theatrical release from Thursday July 12th, Cult of Monster’s David Churack caught up with Luke to discuss the scale of action on display, how Australia needs more large and loud action films and the coming OCCUPATION franchise!

How did you first come up with the idea behind OCCUPATION?

I’m a child of the 80s, and I grew up with some of the best films (I think) ever made. As for my influences, I love films like ALIENS, STAR WARS – all that fantastical stuff – INDEPENDENCE DAY, JURASSIC PARK (I was the right age group when that first came out, it was like my STAR WARS. So growing up in outback Australia watching all those sci-fi films, I was always looking out my window. I was thinking ‘Imagine if flights came over the hills there after an alien attack, with no warning’. It always played on my mind, and I love movies like RED DAWN, so there’s that aspect as well. When I was in America after my first film RED BILLABONG, I pitched this idea to financers as a RED DAWN smashed together with INDEPENDENCE DAY but set in the unique environment of Australia. And they went with it, and six months later we were filming.
I did want to mention you influences, because to me OCCUPATION feels like a film from someone who’s very familiar with sci-fi genre. You’ve mentioned some touchstones already, but are there any other major influences?

There’s also the WAR OF THE WORLDS (the original and the remake). And I’m a huge history buff, I spent my years growing up researching WWI, WWII, and I think a lot of that creeps into my movies as well. That history aspect of documenting a future war in a grounded realistic way, how things might go rather than doing the old sci-fi tropes of a blue beam in the sky, you press a button off and all the aliens die. It was a bit more realistic approach to it: as much as I can drawing inspiration from the past.

OCCUPATION reminds me of a Hollywood blockbuster, a rarity in independent Australian productions. How did you achieve this scale of action?

It’s a rarity in Australia completely – in Australian films in general!

I definitely set out to make a mini-blockbuster here in Australia. It was on my mind all the way through, from the word go all my producers, all the crew, everyone knew what we were trying to do. How we achieved it? Looking back, every day is a struggle, every day is working and coming up with ideas to try and achieve it. It’s very difficult to pinpoint how we did it, cos there’s all this big whirlwind going into it. But I think it’s just: Australia has great crew and great talent. That’s why American films come over here like AQUAMAN, and THOR. We basically make the films for those guys. So getting the right people, getting the right crew, and really just having the vision in my head and just working every day to come up with different ideas to achieve the scope on the budget. And luckily I’ve spent my life growing up working on films like THE PACIFIC and WOLVERINE as crew, I just sort of spent all that time as a big apprenticeship to apply in my own films.
So are you trying to bring your experiences from these bigger Hollywood films into Australia?

Of course, yeah. I think Australian makes great films, great drama, great comedy, but we don’t attempt action films a lot. You’ve got MAD MAX and a couple others and that’s about it. As a film fan growing up in Australia, I’ve luckily got to be around to have MAD MAX’s influence. But for a long time in the 90s and the 2000s there’s hasn’t been any Australian big-budget epic film like this. I would love to bring that to Australia, and that’s kind of my mantle moving forward. That’s why I’ll keep making films like this so at least people like myself, genre fans and actions fans, have an outlet to go see a big-budget action film in their own town or their own country.

I think one of the main ways you achieve this is through the visual effects which are again of a standard not usually seen in Australian film. What went into creating them?

A lot of planning goes into something like that. Coming off my first film I had experience with CGI visual effects creatures, and I applied what I learnt on that film to this one. So careful planning, picking the right team to work on the film that wanted the same end-goal as me, that’s very important. I had a fantastic team in Byron Bay with a wealth of experience that worked on heaps of big films and now they’re doing what I’m doing and helping Australian films achieve a ‘bigger look’. We spent a lot of time together story-boarding each shot so that everything was kosher and what we wanted. I also worked with teams in Canada and the UK that achieved some of the other effects, with the main house being Australia and Byron Bay.

We finished shooting last year, and basically spent from June until February this year just on the visual effects. Even though there’s a lot of shots, there could’ve been a lot more, but we made sure that we contained it with what we could achieve.
And were there any scenes that were particularly challenging to film?

The whole film was a challenge, but I think particularly the opening attack at the showgrounds – we spent two weeks doing that, blowing the hell out of the grandstand and everything else out in Murwillumbah. That was challenging cos of the time limit we had to achieve the look, but everyone pulled together and nailed that really well.

The other interesting aspect was the end battle. Without giving any spoilers, a lot of the end battle was actually not scripted. I sort of came up with it as we went, me and my visual effects team. Now it turned out to be this huge helicopter attack, which is kind of amazing that it wasn’t even scripted, and the cameras pulled it off.

We’ve talked a lot about the film’s blockbuster feel, but it also definitely has a very local Aussie feeling, distinctly local characters and settings. How tricky was it balancing the ‘local’ and more ‘international’ appeal of the film?

The budget we had wasn’t anywhere near an American blockbuster budget, it’s probably what they spend on catering on THE AVENGERS. So obviously I want to make sure that the character development is something that we can really keep people’s attention, and you’re with it for the film. We had a really interesting, eclectic ensemble cast. So that’s really the acting, and with the cast we had some really good names.

I don’t like Australian films that really pour on the Aussie ‘ocker’ accent. I think we do that way too much. I don’t know why, in this day and age, because all my friends – I live in Brisbane and the Gold Coast – don’t talk like that. I guess other places like America would be uncomfortable with that, but I don’t like pouring that on, so I made a conscious decision that I wouldn’t go too far with that. To make it more international as well so we weren’t really making a caricature of ourselves. That’s always something I’m really concerned about.
It is interesting because like you said you see a lot of these ocker Aussie films, but you don’t see many of these big blockbuster type movies like OCCUPATION. Why do you think that is?

Its about budget obviously, we don’t have $200 million lying around. And without getting too political, I think there’s Australian genre films still have a ‘signal’ within the bodies that fund films or the cinemas: I’m really trying to break that mould. I hope that we make more, I would love for OCCUPATION to help usher in more films like this for Australia. Well-made action with a blockbuster feel. I think Australia can carry its weight, but someone’s got to start it. Big things have small beginnings. In the UK market, James Bond is still a very UK character. Even though it’s an international film, its always set in London. Then you span out with TOMB RAIDER and INDIANA JONES who are American. There’s no reason why Australia can’t make adventure action films like that that are set here, but go globetrotting. But the moment you say that to people: ‘What, Indiana Jones wearing thongs and budgie smugglers being a bogan?’ That’s not every Australian, we’re not all like that. Its just breaking stereotypes and someone’s got to do it.

One of the things I found particularly striking is the look of your aliens in the film, it’s both classic and fresh all at once. How did you decide on this look?

I didn’t want to go CGI because again budget limitations, but also growing up in the 80s I like all the practical effects. I think there’s a charm to them, I think people’s eyes will know what’s real and what’s not. So when our characters are throwing around aliens and aliens are throwing around humans, it has that realistic feel because you don’t know what’s going to happen on set. Sometimes magic happens and you’re like ‘That’s amazing he went through a wall!’ or whatever. You just can’t do that with CGI because it’s all very controlled. So I made sure it was practical. And with the design of the helmet I just wanted something creepy and different to what we’ve seen in sci-fi films. Its very hard to come up with new concepts that are still striking to the general audience, but I was very keen on this. I think we saw like a hundred different designs of aliens, and then the guys who made the suit did a fantastic job.

Then on the inside of the alien I did want to go into the mythology that people associate with alien races, and infuse that into a much newer design but still definitely influenced. Its still very big black eyes and grey skin but in a newer, fresh way of doing it. And that came down to the storyline for the aliens, why they’re here and what’s going to happen in future stories. I didn’t want them to be monsters, they’re a race and they have their own particular way to do things.
What plans do you have for OCCUPATION’s international release?

We’ve sold the movie to every territory in the world, which has been fantastic. It opens in American cinemas July 20th. I actually just saw yesterday that the biggest cinema chain in the world, AMC, is going to be showing it in America. So that was a moment where you go that’s amazing. This little Aussie film – I think that’s fantastic. So it opens there across the country, then Canada, UK, Europe, China, and Japan. And the feedback has been fantastic. We sold it to these countries, stood around with these buyers who asked ‘What’s next?’ They want to see the franchise.

And you’ve already had a sequel greenlit for the film. Can you talk about that at this early stage?

This is our first week of pre-production right now. We start shooting end of August through to October this year, so we’re getting onto it very quickly which is great for an Australian franchise. We don’t really do franchises. TO be honest, I never went into it thinking of it as a franchise, just a ‘one and done’ film. But luckily the ending does leave it open a little bit, and its going to be the continuing story of the alien occupation and we’ll see where that goes. And more information will be available after this film is released and people get to see what this film’s about. The sequel is probably the most exciting film I’ve ever worked on of either my own or someone else’s.
Your previous film RED BILLABONG was also a genre production (in this case, a creature feature). What makes you want to work within Australian genre films?

I think it’s just where my head’s at. You have to make a movie for yourself, there’s no point making a movie for somebody else or for the masses, I think you always miss the mark. So I think you can only make the movie you want to see and the movie I want to see is a genre film. Whether that be STAR WARS or JURASSIC PARK, I just like living in that world, I always have. So whenever I want to do a script I’m not gonna make a kitchen drama movie, I’m going to make something that excites me. That’s why I want to make genre movies and that’s why all my movies have something of the fantastical.

RED BILLABONG also related to Aboriginal mythology and settler’s tales. Does OCCUPATION’s plot of ‘invading force threatens Australian natives’ similarly reflect on our colonial past?

I don’t want to be one of those filmmakers who comes out and tells people exactly what their intention is. But obviously you can connect themes – I definitely connect them. You’re not wrong, that’s why I love filmmaking so much. Its like art, everyone sees different things. My brother’s seen the movie, they don’t see that at all. They see something completely different. There’s other people like yourself and me: sure I completely connect that stuff. But I’m not out there to make a political statement, but its definitely there and that’s what I love about it, its not being shoved down people’s throats. If you want to see it, it’s there.
I should talk about the cast of the film, because you’ve assembled an impressive cast of both international and national names. Can you talk about how you found them?

Just briefly: the first person to sign on was Temuera Morrison. He was my first choice, and again I’m a STAR WARS fan so I loved him as Jango Fett, and Jake the Muss, all those movies that he’s been in. He was my first choice as that character, it was fantastic when he said yes.Stephanie Jacobsen – huge fan of her from BATTLESTAR GALACTICA. She was again my first choice. We didn’t think she’d even be interested so we didn’t even go to her first, we had other actresses. Eventually I said ‘You know what? I’m just going to go to Stephanie, roll the dice and see what she says’. She signed on which was a great win for us. And then I was able to cast Trystan Go after he was fantastic in THE FAMILY LAW on SBS.

Jacqueline Mckenzie was one of the last to be cast but again huge coup to get her. Then Dan Ewing I’d obviously worked with on RED BILLABONG and I knew he’d be in there somewhere, I just didn’t know which part yet. But he won me over with his pitch to me of how he wanted to play the character, and I went with it. Some of the other cast like, Zach Garred and Izzy Stevens, I’d seen them on shows and I’m a big fan of their work. I just went straight to them and offered them the role. Felix Williamson I worked with on RED BILLABONG. And Charles Terrier, who’s a newcomer, his manager is the same agent as Dan Ewing. He did a fantastic audition and I had to cast him. I always like to bring new talent up because Australia seems to use the same people over and over again, so its always great to see fresh talent.

One final question: what would you say about the film to Australian audiences?

I would say it’s a really fun action-adventure ride with big things on family (and other themes you’ll find out when you watch the movie!). And I really hope people go and see it because you support this film, its supporting other independent Australian films that could be struggling to get up. And if we’re all working together watching Australian content we can make a better Australian film industry.

OCCUPATION will have its World Premiere on Tuesday July 10th at The Ritz Cinema and will open in cinemas across Australia on Thursday July 12th.